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Back to school – understanding challenges faced by Indigenous children

One way teachers can respect culture is by embedding it into ‘mainstream’ subjects. Tracey Nearmy/AAP

Back to school – understanding challenges faced by Indigenous children

Chances are that many a tear has been shed throughout Australia in recent weeks with the start of the school year. But enough about the parents, let’s talk about the kids!

As with other students, many Indigenous kids will be excited about school, while others will be feeling nervous as they come to grips with new teachers, peers, and environments.

For Indigenous children, there are some added and unique challenges and opportunities.

In 2017, it is likely that more Indigenous children than ever will be commencing school for the very first time. The Indigenous population is young and growing fast.

In 2011, the percentage of Indigenous people under the age of five years was double the percentage for the rest of the population.

Not only is the Indigenous population younger, but statistics are showing signs of improved Indigenous enrolment in early childhood education in the past decade.

In 2001, 46% of Indigenous four-year-olds attended preschool. And in 2013, approximately 75% of Indigenous four-year-olds were enrolled in early childhood education.

Increased participation is encouraging – getting off to a positive start is important when it comes to lifelong learning. Research shows that preschool and childcare participation are positively associated with reading and literacy, as well as maths and abstract reasoning over the long term.

The challenge of providing positive starts to learning is not confined to remote communities alone.

In fact, enrolment data of Indigenous children in early childhood education programs show higher rates in remote areas than in major cities and regional areas.

The reasons for lower rates of participation in urban areas can be due to a combination of generic factors (such as cost and transport) and cultural factors (namely, Indigenous parents’ concern about the cultural identity of their children being supported and valued).

If Australia wants to close the gap in education, then we cannot afford to look at schooling in a vacuum to other socioeconomic factors.

According to the Australian Early Development Census, Indigenous children in 2015 were twice as likely to be developmentally vulnerable on two or more of the AEDC developmental domains (physical health and wellbeing; social competence; emotional maturity; language and cognitive skills; and communication skills and general knowledge).

Embedding Indigenous culture into subjects

The growth in the number of Indigenous children entering school has implications for schools and governments alike.

Principals and teachers will need to work hand-in-glove with Indigenous families to ensure school is a culturally safe environment for their children. This means that Indigenous heritage is respected and promoted.

If school environments get this right early, then the downstream effects can be very positive, as shown by a young Koori woman scoring 98.3% in the 2016 New South Wales Higher School Certificate.

One way teachers can respect culture is by embedding it into “mainstream” subjects.

Take for example, a school in the Top End which is using kinship systems to teach maths. By building on the children’s understanding of kinship relationships, Yolngu teachers help children see the link between particular patterns in kinship names across generations, then associate them with number patterns in conventional maths. By working from what they know, children are actively building a bridge to western concepts and finding grounds of commonality.

Getting to know each child

If we want to grow more success stories in Indigenous education, teachers will need first to establish positive relationships, not only with children but with their families and the wider Indigenous community’s people and culture.

While school policies are important, relationships are the real keys to success.

For teachers, the message is simple – get to really know your kids, their families, their community and its history, and what’s going on at home.

Have a cuppa with Elders. Share a joke with the kids, kick a footy, ask how their weekend was, find time for the children to share their stories, be it through play, art, sport, writing, or show and tell.

You might be testing children, but they’ll be testing you too. They will be looking to see if you’re friendly, trustworthy, caring. If you pass their test, then there is a stronger chance they will pass yours.

Culture is a large part of an Indigenous child’s story, but it is not the only part.

Many (not all) Indigenous children are under stress (educationally, socially, emotionally) due to low income, family mobility, overcrowded homes, and poor health and disability.

Last year I co-authored a paper about Indigenous education that we called “Creating expectations that are really high and highly real.”

The point of our paper is that Indigenous success in education requires simultaneous and coordinated action inside the school gates and outside of them – all aimed at promoting Indigenous child wellbeing.

Social stressors often make the educational climb far steeper and longer for Indigenous children.

Cost of education

Schooling affordability remains as a big issue for many families – Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike.

The notion of “free education” is fast disappearing into Australian mythology.

As a mother in Queensland recently showed via her Facebook post (which went viral), the cost of schooling is a concern for many low-income families. Her message will have struck a chord with many Indigenous families who find books and a pencil case with pencils in it hard enough to buy, let alone a computer case with a computer in it, and having access to Wi-Fi.

Targeted funding

At a systems level, we have got to get the education dollar to where it is most needed; and nowhere is it more needed than in Indigenous education.

About eight in ten Indigenous students attended public schools in 2010, so adequate resourcing for public schools in low socioeconomic areas (where many Indigenous people reside) is imperative.

Schools in low socioeconomic status areas are not only faced with the challenge of providing quality teaching, but often they will need resources to meet the needs of the “whole child”, including their psychology, nutrition, speech, career prospects, and cultural identity.

The Murri School in Queensland is showing the way by providing wrap-around services for children.

The school works with Aboriginal health services and the University of Queensland, among other organisations, to provide holistic support services to children such as in the areas of family support, psychology, ear, nose and throat services, occupational and speech therapy.

They are also supporting children who have shown signs of inter-generational trauma, through tailored healing programs.

Bolstering Indigenous success in education is a shared responsibility: students, families, schools, communities, and governments alike. To paraphrase the poet John Donne,

“No child is an island, entire of herself; every child is a piece of the continent, a part of the main… I am involved in education, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”

If we can get the three R’s (relationships, responsibilities, and resourcing) right, then in future years, we can get children off to a positive start at school and shed a tear for the right reasons.